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Conference of the Americas: Climate Justice

November 8, 2010

On Saturday, John Kroondyk and Jeff Smith presented a session entitled Climate Justice as part of the 11th Annual Conference on the Americas sponsored by Grand Valley State University. While terms like global warming, climate change and climate crisis are familiar to most, the concept of climate justice rarely makes it into the mainstream. However, in Latin America the issues of climate crisis and social justice collide with very real, drastic and horrific results for the continent’s indigenous peoples. “We’re not here to talk about the science of climate change. We agree it is a real, human-caused climate crisis,” Kroondyk said. “We won’t be talking about how many degrees warmer the earth is but about the broader social, political and cultural factors.”

Raining death on the rain forest

Kroondyk went on to address some of the major contributors to the climate crisis in Latin America. Deforestation of the Amazon River Basin is commonly recognized as one of these. Conservative estimates state that 150 acres of Amazon rainforest are destroyed per minute to accommodate the goals of corporate agri-businesses, cattle ranching (think McDonalds) and dam projects—which produce power and landscapes to meet the needs of capitalist business ventures, not to feed or provide electricity for the people living there. While these dam projects tout themselves as “green” projects, they submerge vast forests under water, where they rot and outgas huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. Dam projects also drive indigenous people from their ancestral homes, farms and livelihoods while generating food crops for export, soy for bio-fuels and electricity used to operate industries, such as mining, which further degrade the environment.  “The sad part for me is that indigenous communities, poor folks, and farmers, are driven into the forest and given no choice but to slash and burn in order to grow crops for their families,” Kroondyk said. “Then, they are judged as the bad guys.”

The UN-REDD Program, which portends to remedy deforestation, is a false solution that exacerbates climate crisis. By defining “forest” as any land with 10% ground cover, REDD allows corporate profiteers to destroy forests and replace them with mono-culture tree plantations and non-native cash crops. “It’s really disgusting what their definition of a forest is,” Kroondyk said. “The presence of native species, biodiversity or ecological health are not requirements.”

As mentioned, agri-business is one of the main beneficiaries of deforestation. The market demand for agri-fuels has motivated companies like BP, Shell, DuPont, Cargill and Monsanto to grab Latin American lands away from indigenous peoples in order to grow toxic soy for bio-fuels. One example of the scope of this industry, 85% of the soy grown in Paraguay is for bio-fuel—and is toxic, unsuitable for human consumption. This land grab for bio-fuel production led to the 2008 global food crisis and threatens another 60 million people with hunger and starvation.”Agri-fuels emit just as much CO2 as diesel or petroleum,” Kroondyk pointed out. “They also use water and chemicals for growing. Thinking of bio-fuels as a solution to the climate crisis is ludicrous.”

The carbon boot-print of war

Another cause of global climate crisis as well as climate injustice in Latin America, militarization is rarely cited by environmentalists. Barry Sanders, in his book, The Green Zone, shares that the US Military alone consumes 14 million gallons of oil a day—that’s more than is consumed by 85% of the countries of the world.

US military aid to Latin America fuels even more massive military consumption of oil. In addition, specific programs, such as the War on Drugs, cause drastic environmental damage as aerial chemical and manual deforestation is used to destroy coca production. “These efforts haven’t made a dent in coca production but they have contributed to human deaths, impacted human health, destroyed water and killed other trees and plants that produce oxygen,” Jeff Smith said. “The US has spent $1.5 billion on aerial spraying in Columbia alone.”

The US is also in the process of building many new military bases. These not only expand militarization but also displace people and create social instability within communities.

Resource extraction

While America cheered its ingenuity in rescuing the Chilean coal miners, the media wasn’t telling us about the ongoing horrors caused by resource extraction throughout Latin American by US and multinational firms. Oil, coal, gold and other mineral extraction projects continue to devastate ecosystems, displace people and contaminate soil and water. “These projects also result in significant state repression. Not one country in Latin America is untouched by those dynamics,” Kroondyk said. “And, the actual mining of resources also provides fuel for other industrial production that further contributes to the climate crisis.”

One example, a giant wind farm in Colombia has been described as a “green” project. However, the indigenous people living there were kicked off their land and the power generated is being used to power an open pit coal mine. People living in the area are not receiving any of the electricity.

“There is a great deal we can learn from their movements.”

Unlike their counterparts in the US, the people of Latin America have consistently challenged deforestation, militarization and resource extraction causing crisis in their lands. Last summer, 20, 000 people from 70 countries and UN agencies as well as indigenous peoples gathered for the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In response to the failures of the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change, Cochabamba came up with  proposals calling for 50% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2017; indentifying the rights of mother earth; respecting indigenous people and climate migrants; lifting the barriers of intellectual property; prohibiting the commodification of forests; forming an international climate justice tribune; and more.

  • In 2000, the people of Bolivia took to the streets, demanding that their water rights be returned to them. Bechtel Corporation had bought the rights from Bolivia’s government. They raised prices on water, making it unaffordable—and even preventing people from gathering rain water. Though their peaceful protests were met with military violence and murder, they kept protesting until they won their water rights back.
  • In Brazil, one million members of the Landless People’s Movement (MST) have reclaimed lands for homes, schools and health clinics. Since 1985, they have won land titles for 350,000 families; 180,000 more families are awaiting titles.
  • The Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA) is challenging US trade policy, including FTAA, CAFTA and NAFTA. This is encouraging localized trade and agriculture, i.e. growing food for local consumption and reducing emissions tremendously. Bolivia has also refused US requests to renew a new military base there.”Ecuador did the same thing,” Smith said. “They told the US ‘you can but only if we can put an Ecuadorian base in Miami.”
  • Ecuador has taken steps to prevent extraction of oil under Yasuni National Park UNESCO Biosphere.
  • In Peru, people are challenging oil extraction with blockades, dismantling pipelines and a variety of tactics.
  • In Columbia, the U’wa indigenous peoples fought against Occidental Petroleum through legal action, non-violent direct action such as blockades and dismantling pipelines. FARQ also blew up pipelines. After 17 years, Occidental left.
  • Via Campesina a worldwide peasant movement, fights for peasant and family-based farm production, food sovereignty and local food production. This combats climate crisis, emissions from agricultural production and transportation.
  • The Zapatistas (EZLN) have specific struggles in Chiapas, an area historically exploited by Mexico’s elite… Currently, they are fighting against a huge agri-business bio-fuel onslaught.

“The Zapatista political ideology goes hand in hand with the climate justice movement. They say no to false solutions, market control and market logic that recreates the same mess we are already in. They say yes to a pluralistic view, respect for biodiversity, indigenous cultures, negotiation of environmental space and social equity between the global north and south,” Smith said. “We need to be looking at ways we can change US policy and asking ourselves what kind of solidarity can we engage in to support the people in these countries. We can be agents of creative change in this process. And, there is a great deal we can learn from their movements.”

Kroondyk ended the presentation with this clip of Bolivian hip-hop artists challenging the system for climate justice.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    November 8, 2010 10:39 pm

    Has Bechtel or Coca-Cola or another corporation attempted to buy an entire country’s water rights since the successful resistance in Bolivia? Or are they all now operating in a more piecemeal and insidious way?

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    November 8, 2010 11:06 pm

    Kate, it is in a much more piecemeal way, but less so in Latin America than other parts of the world. Many of the Latin American nations that are part of ALBA have put corporations on notice that extracting resources from those countries will not be as easy as it has been in the past. There are some impressive things that is happening from the grassroots, which is impacting some of the heads of state. A good recent book is by Ben Dangle called “Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America.

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